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Without Economic Liberty, Your Personal Liberty Cannot Be Secure

BOTH ANIMALS AND HUMAN BEINGS have bodies, but animals are bound to things by their instincts, whereas we humans relate to things by our minds. Our reason means that we can reflect upon ourselves and what we are doing. We can actually think about our thoughts! We think and are dependent on the use of reason. The mind is what makes human beings distinctly human. Consider the fact that the human mammal is one of the most vulnerable of all animals: We have no prehensile tail that enables us to swing away from danger, no wings with which we can take flight from the predator, no fangs or fierce claws or thick hide to ward off our enemies. The human person lives by reason, apprehending reality and ordering reality, integrating, understanding, remembering, and building.

It is this rational relationship we human beings have to nature that gives rise to property. Property, you see, is not this or that physical object. Property is a relationship between a person and a thing or idea. To own property is to be in a particular kind of relationship with something in the world—a relationship, moreover, that is recognized by others in the community. Some animals have a recognizable if rudimentary sense of what we might call ownership, of course—as when one beaver knows that another beaver possesses a particular dam. But what is most illuminating in such comparisons are the differences. A beaver cannot sell his dam or buy one from another beaver, he cannot lease the dam, and he does not use his dam for collateral to borrow money to launch a business. But human property owners are able to do all these things with the property they own—because property exists in the context of shared human reason.

Why is private property essential? Why shouldn’t all property be owned by all? The scarcity of physical things is a feature of the world that we cannot escape. This fact of scarcity means that there is a potential conflict over who is going to use things and how. We can struggle with each other to grab and keep what we can for ourselves. Or we can use a system rooted in private ownership, which permits us to trade, give gifts, or share based on our own free will. This is the peaceful solution to the problem of scarcity.

It also so happens that private property demonstrates the interpenetration between our physical bodies and our capacity for transcendence. We engage nature with labor that our reason plans and directs—and produce something that did not previously exist. Not just another beaver dam exactly the same as the ones beavers have been building for millennia, but a Chartres Cathedral, a Mona Lisa—or an electric light bulb, a smallpox vaccine, a revolution in agriculture that lifts millions of people out of dire poverty, or, more modestly, a garden or orchard that feeds a family and expresses a particular gardener’s thoughtful stewardship of the land.

The right to property is wrapped up in a person’s capacity to apply his intellect to matters and ideas, to look ahead, to plan and steward the use of that possession.

These things are possible because we don’t just relate to the material world in an immediate or temporary manner. The relationship of human beings to things is not merely a relationship of consumption. Is is also one of reason and creativity—and it is that relationship that makes the institution of private property possible. The right to private property is not merely control over a physical object, as my dog Theophilus might possess a bone. Rather the right to property is wrapped up in a person’s capacity to apply his intellect to matters and ideas, to look ahead, to plan and steward the use of that possession. Just as other fundamental human rights are not created by the state but are possessed by virtue of a person’s existence and nature, so also the right to private property is recognized rather than granted by the government.

The right to property is not absolute—no one, no matter how rich, has the right to buy the whole surface of the earth, or even to deny bread he owns to a starving neighbor who has absolutely no recourse for survival—but it is sacred because it has such a close connection to human beings as creatures made in the image of God, creatures placed in the context of scarcity and given a capacity to reason, create, and transcend. The best thing that politicians can do in regard to property is to enact and enforce just laws in accordance with natural law—to protect people from having their belongings unjustly confiscated.

That is why cultures that have systematically attacked and undermined the right to private property have tended to wither, and those civilizations that have managed to extend the right to private property to an ever greater number of people have tended to thrive. Here I can’t help but think of an Acton Institute interview of the historian and sociologist Rodney Stark. He was discussing why China, which a thousand years ago was ahead of the West in many ways, fell behind technologically and eventually in measures of societal well being, such as life expectancy among the poor. The story is immensely complicated, but it boils down to one issue—private property:

One of the great sad stories is that something that looked like the start of a real, honest, industrial revolution started in China about the tenth century. They had some small iron smelters and they started getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and people who owned them kept reinvesting and increased production and they got bigger and bigger. And eventually, the Mandarins discovered this was going on and that ordinary people were getting rich. They stopped it. They closed it down. The whole thing stopped and went away. Look, a great historian of Asia put it well. He said, private property is not secure and that’s the first, and last, and total answer to why there was no development in the East.

The positive side of this coin is that a thousand years later many Asian countries have begun to thrive economically as they have moved away from command-and-control economies and begun extending economic freedom to larger and larger numbers of their people—imperfectly as in any human society, but still in a dramatic shift toward expanded property rights and economic liberty.

That property rights are related to the well-being of men and women shouldn’t surprise us. As we’ve seen, they are an outgrowth of human intelligence and transcendence. Property comes into existence in this interplay and overlap of human physicality and spirituality. Thus throughout history it has proven difficult to safeguard personal freedoms like the freedom of speech in the absence of property rights. If you are to have the right to free speech, but are not permitted to publish a book at a private publisher, or to own a newspaper or television station or radio station, or even to post an opinion online because the government has begun to treat the internet as if it owns it, then in what practical sense can you be said to have the right to free speech?

The same is true of religion. If the state strips away our economic freedom to decide how and where we use our private means to compensate doctors, nurses, and physical therapists in exchange for medical care, if the government comes to control all of this as if these medical skills and private exchanges were somehow the government’s property, then it suddenly becomes easier for the government to infringe upon one’s right to religious freedom in certain important ways. Consider the mandate issued by the Obama administration’s Department of Health and Human Services in early 2012, requiring all employers—including religious institutions—to provide abortifacient drugs, sterilization, and contraception coverage as part of their health insurance programs even if those religious groups are morally opposed to doing so. The fact that a seventh of the nation’s economy had already been placed under the control of the federal government by Obamacare—the fact that so many in our culture were comfortable with such a massive government intervention in the private sector—made it much easier for HHS to issue such a mandate.

Government largesse is all too likely at some point to carry with it requirements at odds with one’s deepest principles and morals.

It is very instructive to review the progress of the passage of Obamacare. It was initially supported by the American Bishops’ conference, but eventually lost their support out of fear that it lacked a sufficient “conscience clause” exempting Church institutions from covering services deemed immoral by the Church.

Independence of conscience is not so easy to maintain when you aren’t independent of government purse strings. When a religious institution becomes dependent on the state, political control eventually follows, as surely as night follows day. The old adage, “He who drinks the king’s wine sings the kings songs,” seems applicable here.

The king in this case, the Obama administration, has brought other weapons to bear in its ongoing attack on religious freedom. One is the power of the president’s bully pulpit. In a subtle but powerful rhetorical shift, administration figures have begun speaking of the “freedom to worship” rather than the “freedom of religion.” While the two phrases sound similar, the difference between them raises certain questions: Does the freedom to worship include a social dimension? May one, for example, worship with others? If so, where? May a group assemble and purchase property for this purpose? What if their religion admonishes them to teach children, or tend to the sick? May they build schools, hospitals, and universities? You see the problem? With only “freedom to worship,” religion all too easily becomes something quarantined from the public square, something done in private and only in private, if you have any sense of secular decorum.

Personal liberty is interconnected with economic liberty. It is dangerous to surrender one’s economic independence by accepting subsidies, even with the intention of accomplishing good. Government largesse is all too likely at some point to carry with it requirements at odds with one’s deepest principles and morals.


Rev. Sirico is the President of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. This article is excerpted from his book, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy, © 2012 by Robert Sirico, published by Regnery Publishing.